Photo by Lutz Diehl    

An interview with
Darran Charles

By Beppe Colli
Feb. 11, 2013

As I argued at length in my review, the new album by Welsh trio Godsticks, The Envisage Conundrum, presents quite a few interesting traits: complex and varied, but in the end quite accessible; definitely "hard-sounding", while at the same time possessing more than a few undeniable "pop" hooks; a "neo-Prog" album dressed in "metal" clothing; all in all, a strange, surprising beast.

Wanting to learn more, I got in touch with Darran Charles, who besides being the group's guitar player and singer also plays keyboards, while writing the bulk of the group's material.

Charles agreed to answer my questions, which he did in the course of last week. The interview was conducted by e-mail.

First things first: What does the name of your group - Godsticks - mean? It appears that this word is not included in any dictionary I own. (I also checked Wikipedia...)

I believe "Godsticks" are Maori implements of worship. My wife Rhiannon came up with the name when we gave her the exhaustive task of looking for a band name that hasn't been used before!

The name of the new album is The Envisage Conundrum. Both words - Envisage and Conundrum - are clear to me when it comes to their meaning, but it's their combination that looks quite open-ended to me... Is there anything you'd like to say here?

I'm very interested in the English language, and also in surreal comedy! So sometimes, when I quickly have to come up with a song title for a work-in-progress, I tend to put words together that usually don't belong with one another. Some of the working titles were quite bizarre, for example: "Teflon Blanket", "Shoes", and "I'm not pregnant, but it is yours".

The fact that the album and song titles are open-ended is a side benefit. Like a lot of musicians/artists, I'm keen for the listener to interpret the lyrics and music as they so wish. From a personal point of view, I don't really like it when other artists describe what their exact intentions were, regardless of the medium they're using: it sort of spoils the experience a little (in my opinion). Maybe that's why I like David Lynch films, as I generally have no idea what's going on in them!

From what I can tell, recording and mixing the new album was a complex effort, and I'm sure a lot of time (and money!) was spent in order to achieve what you had in mind. The vocal layers, especially, are quite dense, yet clear, which I'm sure was something not easily achieved. Would you mind talking about this part of the process?

The vocal harmonies are probably the "fun" part of composing for me. It's interesting to see what harmony parts you can weave in and out of the main melody line. I'm also a fan of the close harmonies in country music, as well the Bulgarian choir that produced Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares: both are probably a subconscious inspiration.

The credit has to go to our producer Joe Gibb for layering the harmonies and giving the parts that all important clarity. Whilst the mixing process was long and extremely frustrating at times, it's easy to forget what a difficult job we gave him. There's a hell of a lot going on in these tracks sometimes, but it's absolutely vital for everything to balance perfectly and not get in the way of one another - which is an easy thing to say, but not necessarily to execute!

Thanks to personal websites and the like, nowadays one doesn't really need an interview to know about artists' works and their careers. However, I'm really curious to know if you - also the other members of the trio, of course - are self-taught, or did you attend a school of some sort? (This includes, of course, the great abundance of "instructional videos" and the like.)

Well, Steve is self-taught both on piano and drums and he's arguably a virtuoso on both!

Even though technically you could say I'm self-taught, I've learnt loads though instructional guitar magazines and videos, and I also attended the Guitar Institute in London part-time. I still take piano lessons, and still practise, study and transcribe every day in order to continually evolve as a player and writer. My routine hasn't changed since I was a teenager!

Dan had bass lessons I believe, and like me he's always studying and transcribing. He's just began learning piano too.

Nowadays it looks like when it comes to music the hope of "having a career" - not to mention "making it" - is no longer a realistic aspiration, especially if one plays "complex music". On the other hand, one is sure to spend quite a lot of money - buying instruments, recording gear, and the like - with no real hope to recoup. So is "the calling" to be a musician still something real?

I think the ability to make a living as a musician has been practically decimated over the last 10 years, mainly due to the seismic changes in the record industry, coupled with advancement of music-making technology. The bar for success is higher than ever and very few seem able to reach it.

Thanks to computer sequencers and cheap recording equipment, it's very easy to record a song and even an album at home these days. For professional session musicians, this means they are no longer in demand as they once were, and for original bands means that it's very difficult to stand out from the crowd because the market is saturated with new bands and new music. There are many positives and negatives to speak of, so it's impossible to say whether I think it's a good or bad thing.

In regards to "the calling": I haven't really thought about why I write music, but I've never been in a covers band so playing other people's music has never really interested me (unless it's a Frank Zappa cover!). It would be a dream come true to be able to make a living from writing and performing music but unfortunately, without my day job I could not afford to do any of this. However, every single penny we make goes back into the band, and usually on gear!

I have one question about the topic of performing skills: In the past, music was always the product of performing abilities of specific people - even those "manufactured groups" from the 60s were based on real recordings made by real musicians, so even listeners who were fond of "unadventurous" types of music could, in the end, develop a taste for "human-made" timbre and technique. Nowadays, however, a lot of music is "machine-made", so it appears that "performance-based music" does not benefit from "extra points", so to speak. What's your point of view?

That's a very interesting question. What immediately springs to mind with using computer-generated music (drums especially), is the lack of dynamics. This is where human beings excel. Sometimes a drummer might hit a snare harder in the chorus than he did in the verse, or the guitarist may mute a chord in one bar and let it ring out in another - all of these idiosyncratic things are associated with a real performing musician and often give the song its "feel".

There's nothing wrong with computer generated music but my personal preference is that it's balanced with real musicians - fundamentally, a drummer and bass player. For instance, I like some Rap music and I remember recently watching a rap artist with a full band behind him: it sounded a million times better than the album.

I don't know how you define the music Godsticks play - not that it really matters, of course, but just for convenience's sake. Anyway, it has been said that in many cases - say, Jazz - nowadays a "genre" is played by musicians who are, as a rule, younger than their audience. (Here the Marsalis brothers, at the time of their "raise to fame", come to mind.) What kind of people do you see at your concerts, age-wise?

It's very difficult to define what kind of music we play, much like it would be difficult to define what kind of music we enjoy listening to. Our music is generally as varied as our influences which range from Frank Zappa to ELP, and Rufus Wainwright to Alison Krauss. If I had to label us it would be "progressive pop" but I'm sure there are many interpretations of the style of music we play. As you said, it doesn't really matter but from a marketing point a view, the fact we can't be pigeon-holed can be very problematic sometimes!

Age-wise, our audience is quite varied but because we've not done a full headline tour, the audience age is often determined by the band we're supporting. For example, when we supported Focus the crowd was predominantly over-50, but when we toured with The Pineapple Thief and The Aristocrats the audience age was between 18 - 50.

Hope my next question makes sense to you: I've read the group is from Wales. Do you perceive your work as a composer to be linked - in musical climates, or topics - more strongly to Wales and the Welsh heritage? Or do you see it as being "place-neutral"?

Place-neutral definitely. Personally, I couldn't care less about nationality, and the great thing about music is that it generally transcends those boundaries.

Silly question, maybe: Favourite guitar player, singer, and composer (with, or without, a guitar).

I'm going to create a few other categories too:

Biggest guitar influence: Shaun Baxter

Favorite guitar player: Steve Vai pre-1991

Composer: Frank Zappa

Favorite Male Singer: Rufus Wainwright

Favorite Female Singers: Alison Krauss, Norah Jones

I'm sure the new album is still fresh in your mind, and already there are concerts to play. What do people who'll attend your concerts have to expect when it comes to the new songs as performed on stage? Will you have a flesh-and-blood choir appear with you, some very good effects, or...

I think anyone who's witnessed us play live before is in for a very different experience this time around. Our intention in the past has been to try and emulate what was played on the album and consequently we tended to over-rely upon backing tracks, which we don't particularly like doing.

For future live shows however, we've arranged the music (both from the new album and Spiral Vendetta) to fit the band and we definitely feel more freedom on stage as a result.

We use loads of guitar effects but I think the "pedal-board tap-dancing" adds to the visual spectacle as well as augmenting the overall sound. We also use a vocal-harmony pedal and sometimes a synth backing track. But our over-reliance on backing-tracks is definitely a thing of the past because it does not make for an entertaining live show - for us or the audience.

All 3 of us take keyboard duties as some point during the set so I think the sense of fun that we have on stage will now be translated to the audience somewhat.

Beppe Colli 2013 | Feb. 11, 2013